Titicut Follies: the birth of a director

Frederick Wiseman was born in 1930 in Boston. After being a Law Professor for many years, he developed an interest in cinema and became a producer and then director. In 1967, he directed his first film, Titicut Follies, about a psychiatric prison.

The birth of a director

Don’t tell that his work doesn’t represent a lot of time. Wiseman spends hours shooting scenes with a small crew and does editing work that lasts several months all the time to give meaning and rhythm to the script of his documentaries. He also makes a habit of not using voice-overs for his productions. And it was on the occasion of this first documentary that he developed his directing method.

An ordinary day in the detention center © John Marshall/Titicut Follies

Frederick Wiseman gave an interview to STF docs in 2012 about this film. He declared that the documentary was a way to raise awareness among the condition of these mentally ill people placed not only in prison but also in hospices. When watching the film, there is indeed a strong interest in the situation where these patients find themselves in, which does not serve to produce a sensational but realistic film, even if there is a script.

« The documentary is a way to raise awareness among the condition of these mentally ill people placed not only in prison but also in hospices. »

Dementia as a script

The topic of this documentary is particularly sensitive because it follows mental prisoners. And some scenes therefore stand out from others. One of the scenes that particularly catch the attention is that of one of the prisoners who has an episode of dementia and starts talking loudly and alone next to all his fellow prisoners. His words are incomprehensible and anyone would be stunned by such a scene. We notice then the state of complete dementia – surely also because they are under heavy medication – of all these prisoners who do not even notice the behavior of their comrade.

Prisoners’ dementia © John Marshall/Titicut Follies

Titicut Follies is one of the many documentaries that present direct cinema. This documentary reminds of two films in particular. The most recent is Don’t look back by Donn Alan Pennebaker. Both films present us an immersion with certain people without trying to interfere too much with reality and show us even the most natural moments in their contexts. Their other common point is their absence of voice-over, which allows the viewer to understand the whole thing by himself. The second film is Les Maîtres fous by Jean Rouch, which, like Titicut Follies, presents shocking scenes. Although Don’t look back does not especially present violent scenes, all three show scenes that cry out for truth.


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